When skinny British music-hall comedian Stanley Laurel met portly American film comic Oliver Hardy, the result was cinema’s most enduring and beloved comedy duo. Evidence of this statement can be found in last year’s Blu-ray collection, reviewed by PopMatters in “Laurel & Hardy’s Genius of Everday Chaos“.
Laurel and Hardy first appeared together in The Lucky Dog, shot early in 1921 for producer G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson. Best known as the first western star, Anderson is the man who fires a gun at the camera for the iconic ending of Edwin S. Porter‘s The Great Train Robbery (1903), and he can be called the man responsible for the duo’s professional meeting. However, they wouldn’t officially team up until 1927. Then it was off to the races.
Less well-known to the casual viewer is that each man had long solo careers in comedy shorts before their magic combined in that glorious synergy. Lobster Films, the Library of Congress, and Blackhawk Films have assembled and restored many of those solos into Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray, Laurel or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Disc 1 is devoted to Laurel, and Disc 2 covers Hardy. I assume this is because Laurel’s work is stronger overall, as this established music-hall comic came to Hollywood and more or less started at the top. However, we’re of a chronological bent. Since Hardy began several years earlier and features in the oldest films here, we’ll discuss him first.
From 1914 to 1915, Babe Hardy (as he was often credited) appeared in at least 66 films for Arthur Lubin’s studio in Jacksonville, Florida. Most are lost, of course, and this set offers four of them. Hardy has no consistent personality from one film to another, appearing now as an overgrown mama’s boy, now as a hapless suitor, now as a regular fellow. His size is sometimes part of his personality, sometimes not.
In possibly the most interesting title, An Expensive Visit (Will Louis, 1915), his character is a college student whose role is sidelined for the antics of a cross-dressing Raymond McKee making a fool of the student’s old father (Ed Lawrence). Masquerading was a common trope in silent films, as was making or losing money. Apart from the story’s appeal, this film gets our attention with a few startling closeups.
Arthur D. Hotaling directs the other three Lubin productions here. One of these, A Lucky Strike (1915), stars Hotaling’s gangly comedienne wife Mae Hotely as a servant who unwittingly romances a sweet-natured gold miner (Hardy).
Relocating to New York, Hardy worked for a number of studios not included here, such as Edison. He appeared in an episode of Theodore Wharton’s serial, The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford (1915), based on George Randolph Chester’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, a lovable con artist who branched out from short stories into plays and films. The episode shows Hardy playing a burglar under grotesque makeup.
Then come three 1916 films directed by Will Louis for General Film Company. These are examples of Hardy’s first series character, the Plump and Runt shorts. Guess which one is Hardy. Billy Ruge plays the runt. The problem, as the notes observe, is that the characters don’t come across as a team but merely as two people in the same stories. Hardy’s domination of them indicates the growing popularity that led to forming his own unit for General, with several films directed by himself–alas, none here. Hardy now seems comfortable and commanding.
A bunch of films follow in which Hardy adopts bushy eyebrows and often a mustache. Two of them star Billy West, a flagrant and not-bad imitation of Charlie Chaplin. The best West is He’s In Again (1918), where Billy dances in drag and performs a boxing match.
That one’s directed by Charles Parrott, better known as dapper comedian Charley Chase, and he directs himself and Hardy in the disc’s two highlights, also from 1918. In Married to Order, Hardy plays the nearsighted father who doesn’t want his daughter (Rosemary Theby) to marry a “mollycoddle” (Chase). The daughter masquerades as her twin brother, and then this “brother” is told to dress as his sister!
Constructed with mathematical elegance, Hello Trouble is a comedy of adultery and nosy neighbors. Lots of films here are missing bits and pieces; this one lacks half its running time and shows visible deterioration, yet it’s a delight. For this Universal short, Parrott/Chase and Hardy had moved to Hollywood. The notes point out how these actors’ lives were affected by the Spanish Flu epidemic that temporarily shut them out of work and nearly killed West. One hundred years ago, folks.
In fact, the same shutdown happened to Laurel, who in 1918 arrived at Vitagraph Studios and started at the top by teaming with ace comedian-auteur Larry Semon, a very important and somewhat forgotten figure. After three films, including the backwoods comedy Bears and Bad Men (the first film on Laurel’s disc), with Laurel as a bumbler similar to his later persona, influenza shut down the studio and he was footloose again.
We must get back to Hardy because now we’re really getting somewhere. After two years in support of comic Jimmy Aubrey at Vitagraph (no examples here), Hardy moved on to several years in support of the very same Semon who’d worked with Laurel a few years earlier. Semon’s films are accurately described in the notes as “physical mayhem almost beyond description.” Semon wrote and co-directed his own films with Norman Taurog, whose career as a comedy director stretched into the 1960s and covered work with just about everyone.
Three Semon films are here, all looking expensive and elaborate and all with Hardy as antagonist. The bird-nosed Semon conceived ideas for maximum escalation: not one man falling through a hole but everyone, not one man de-pantsed but four, not one person covered in soot but dozens as a whole audience is punished for spectatorship.
Pretty much everyone gets plastered with something, including white powder all over the black maid in a reversal of the typical gag. It’s intriguing and somewhat refreshing to see an African-American comedienne get a large supporting role with closeup; I wish we knew who she was. That’s from the biggest production, The Show (1922), which begins in a vaudeville house and ends in a surprisingly great train chase. Semon has a dual role.
As Hardy worked with Semon, Laurel worked with producer-director Anderson during 1922-23, although the best of the series was directed by Frank Fouce. That’s When Knights Were Cold (1923), a charmingly absurd spoof of the Marion Davies hit When Knighthood Was in Flower.
Laurel then spent 1923-24 at Hal Roach Studios, usually making films in which his character wreaks havoc at one job or another while at odds with antagonists played by James Finlayson, a mainstay of the future Laurel & Hardy shorts. He’s just as vital a presence here, even playing Laurel’s long-lost twin in Brothers Under the Chin (Ralph Cedar, 1924). Finlayson’s especially good trailing our hero, who’s innocently following a pretty woman around the neighborhood in A Man About Town (George Jeske, 1923).
These films show that from the start of Laurel’s film career, his persona displayed physical traits and gestures, the smiles and pirouettes, we’d find in his teaming with Hardy. His roles aren’t consistent, and sometimes are violent and immoral, but most are only a few steps in one direction or another from the famous Stanley we know.
In Anderson’s The Egg (1922), his character gives a speech of garbled lines like “a rolling stone in worth two in the bush”, and our mind’s ear can hear Stan spouting such nonsense years later. The same year’s The Pest makes brief use of the kind of street stairway that would center the team’s great The Music Box, directed in 1932 by Chase’s brother James Parrott.
Laurel’s recycling and refining of gags can be seen on his variants of a pants-ripping routine, first in an Anderson film of 1922 (A Weak-End Party) and then a Roach production one year later (Collars and Cuffs). In the first, the pants rip vertically. In the next, they rip horizontally and lead to greater mayhem.
The Whole Truth (Ralph Cedar, 1923), cobbled together from unrelated movies, gives occasion to observe the presence of African-Americans in these comedies and how their functions can contrast. One excerpted film, set in Africa, has tedious “native” stereotypes. Another clip simply gives a non-stereotyped black couple a rare chance to do a physical gag unrelated to their color or status, and it’s performed without racial tics just as any white couple would have done. We’d like to believe that the latter is Laurel’s progressiveness.
When a black chauffeur in The Pest is “scared white” by a seeming lion, we’re reminded of a vital way that race is handled as a joke during this era. The joke is that race is flexible, not permanent, and literally a cosmetic quality. Like the era’s other mighty binary of social order, the man/woman gender division, the white/black jokes exploit the idea of crossing from one state to the other, a dangerous idea for those who take these binaries seriously. Something is being overturned, and that’s presumably why audiences laughed, even if they didn’t analyze it.
Let’s belabor this point a moment longer. If a Black person is momentarily white or vice versa, that’s as “funny” as a man dressed in drag because it violates what’s supposedly eternal and inflexible. That is, these jokes offend the deeply held principles on which racism and sexism are founded, even if we say that joke is racist or sexist. Jokes oppose essentialism in the social order. Thus, even comedy that seems distasteful or offensive today has a subversive point. One element of their “bad taste” is to foreground matters we prefer not to think about.
These films established Laurel so well that he moved on to his own production company with producer Joe Rock during 1924-25. Three examples are here, directed by Percy Pembroke. Pie-Eyed (1925) is simply a drunk routine, and it shows Laurel’s penchant for stretching the simplest tasks to the infinity of Zeno’s Paradox.
Twins (1924) is self-explanatory, while Detained (1924) shows Laurel almost completely in his Stan persona: a childlike innocence ready to burst into laughter or tears, and full of bashful homo-erotic flirting. That doesn’t prevent the humor from getting morbid or surreal; one neck-stretching gag would be repeated on Hardy in one of the duo’s talkies. These films were popular, but payment disputes led Laurel to return to Hal Roach.
Where was Babe? Getting back to his disc, Rivals (Ward Hayes, 1925) reunites Hardy with Billy West, no longer impersonating Chaplin. The story features surprisingly queer gags on manhood as the rivals compete for the hand of a very pretty woman (Ethlyn Gibson).
The final two Hardy shorts here find him at his new home, Hal Roach Studios. Laurel directs but doesn’t appear in Wandering Papas (1926), a vehicle for little mustached Clyde Cook. Laurel leaves the camera on Hardy’s quiet, extended reaction shots, a foreshadowing of the Ollie we know. The Glenn Tryon comedy Say It with Babies (Fred Guiol, 1926) charms us with Hardy’s most delicate and Ollie-like performance yet, so much better than when he’s just an angry bully.
The producers of this Blu-ray set have scoured collections around the world to present a coherent program of 35 titles. Many are admirably restored, some are tinted, and all have new piano scores idiomatic of the period. The detailed liner notes offers credits and notes on source prints. There are no commentary tracks and I didn’t miss them. The films are at least historically interesting, and the best will be welcome to silent comedy buffs everywhere.
As we’ve mentioned, last year’s Laurel & Hardy set concentrated on early talkies. Next I suppose we’re waiting for a definitive collection of their silent shorts. However long that takes, it will be worth the wait.